After consistently struggling with teacher vacancies each fall, Chicago Public Schools started off this year with fewer vacancies and more teachers on staff than it has had in almost a decade, according to data released by school district officials on Friday.
School district officials touted the accomplishment and also highlighted progress in hiring more new Black and Latino teachers to better reflect the student body.
“There are more trained, highly-qualified adults in school buildings to help than there were last year, and last year there were more than there were the year prior,” said Matt Lyons, the school district’s chief talent officer. “That makes a real impact on schools, on students and families and, frankly, on those teachers who now have more support in their building.”
Lyons highlighted this as a major accomplishment, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Nationally, there is a teacher shortage.
The situation is a sharp contrast to a few years ago, when the district budgeted for fewer teacher positions and there were more vacancies. That left some students in classrooms without a permanent instructor or the support they needed all year long. The problem was especially acute with special education and bilingual teachers and in schools that serve children from poor families.
Chicago Public Schools says 20,439 teaching positions were staffed on the first day of school, up from 19,360 three years ago. That is a 6% increase. The school-based teacher vacancy rate dropped slightly, from 4% to 3.3% this year.
There are also 775 more special education teachers, contributing to a reduced special education teacher vacancy rate of 4.8%. That’s down from 8.5% three years ago.
Lyons said the progress is due to a shift in how the school district hires. It used to advertise jobs and essentially wait for candidates to apply.
“In the past, CPS has been a passive consumer of the traditional path to teaching. We hired from the group of teachers who were prepared by colleges and universities, mostly in Illinois. We hadn’t done a lot to help drive change.”
But in recent years, the school district has become more aggressive. It launched its own residency program, partnering with universities, and focused on special education and bilingual teachers.
It also worked to solve one of the perennial problems in Chicago Public Schools: because schools often didn’t get their school-level budgets until late spring or early summer, they often didn’t know what positions they needed to fill. By the time CPS principals were hiring, many candidates had already taken positions in other school districts.
Under former Schools CEO Janice Jackson, who stepped down in June, principals got budgets earlier.
Also, CPS started a program to hire teachers when they were available, even before positions were open, and before it could be determined where they would teach. This program worked specifically with schools with students from low-income families that struggled to fill positions.
Saucedo Principal Ginger Hiltz said this program was a “game changer.” She said when she took the helm of her Little Village school, she sometimes would have special education teacher vacancies that continued into the year. And, if a teacher left during a school year, it was hard to find a replacement.
Hiltz said she is now able to tap teachers who can take those jobs. Just this year, she found herself in August needing a bilingual, special education teacher — a position that previously had been nearly impossible to fill.
“So, for us, it has just meant super high-quality hiring when we do have vacancies,” Hiltz said. “It is just a miracle.”
In addition, the school district says 46% of new hires this year are Black or Latino, up from about a third in the 2018-2019 school year.
Hiring more Black and Latino teachers was one of Jackson’s major goals. As part of a five-year-vision, she committed to hiring 3,000 new Black and Latino teachers by 2024. The school district said 1,900 have already been hired.
Overall, about 43% of teachers are Black or Latino in a school district with about 84% Black and Latino students.
“It’s important for our students who represent different races and ethnic backgrounds to see someone who looks like them in the classroom, teaching and inspiring them every day,” said Maurice Swinney, CPS’ interim chief education officer. “When our students see themselves represented, it inspires the notion that ‘If that person could do it, so can I.’ ”